Art & Suffering
There’s a scene in the documentary Roadrunner where Anthony Bourdain and David Choe discuss the relationship between art and suffering. It’s a conversation we’ve all seen a million times, one that has no doubt been recurring endlessly throughout history. Does great art require suffering? Or is that just a self-justifying lie artists cling to for comfort? (Better to believe the suffering is required, I suppose, than to acknowledge that you’ve suffered for nothing.)
There was a time when I found myself quite drawn to this question, as many are in their youth. It’s a common tendency among aspiring artists, I think, to start acting the way you imagine an artist acts long before you actually start producing any art. And there’s a romance to the image of the struggling artist that’s sadly missing from that of the functional, untroubled one.
But watching that scene in Roadrunner, all I could think now was: really? This again? Here were two of the most interesting artists of our generation, and they were stuck on the same old boring question that college freshmen discuss over bong hits. It’s not so much that I think the question of whether great art requires suffering is uninteresting—I admit that it has a sort of navel-gazing appeal. It’s more just that I think it’s irrelevant. What do you do if the answer turns out to be yes—force yourself to suffer on purpose? We all know creative types who do that, and it rarely seems to make their art any better. If suffering is truly required, it seems like it has to be genuine.
Mostly, though, I’m tired of this conversation because I think it focuses too much on the wrong kind of suffering. When you hear the phrase “suffering for their art,” you think of Jackson Pollock’s drunken rages, or Frida Kahlo’s turbulent marriage to Diego Rivera, or Michelangelo nearly killing himself finishing the Sistine Chapel. Much less attention is paid to the smaller ways we suffer, the mild inconveniences and minor sacrifices necessary to create anything.
I don’t really consider myself an artist yet, though I hope to someday. But now when I think about the relationship between art and suffering, I think about it on a smaller scale. I think about leaving a party early so you can write the next morning, or being hopelessly embarrassed by almost everything you’ve ever put out into the world, or trying desperately to beat a messy draft into shape only to have it resist you at every turn.
These forms of “suffering” are so small that they barely deserve the term. They aren’t sexy or exciting, and they’d make for a very boring scene in a movie. But if you observe them closely, you can find a beauty in their banality. They reward deeper exploration precisely because they don’t reveal themselves all at once. And so these are the stories I’m more interested in lately: not artists suffering in great ways, but artists suffering in small ones.
Yours in having written this piece through my own suffering of having both a deadline and a hangover,